A to Z of Making It, Music, My Stories

Lifers and Record Labels

Once upon a time, the record labels searched for talent. Known as the self-appointed gatekeepers of culture; if they believed you were good enough, they would sign you and market you. They would give you money to go away and write songs. Some of those songs would end up on album, some as b-sides, some would be given to other artists and some songs would just remain as demo’s.

What the labels failed to tell the artists, is that the label would own all of those songs and the money the artist received as an “advance” would need to be repaid back to the artist.

Today, the labels are a very different beast. All they want is something they can sell. And they do that by copying what is successful.

So what we have is a plethora of acts that all sound the same.

Sound familiar.

Of course it does. Go back to the Eighties.

In 1983, Motley Crue broke out and suddenly the labels signed bands that looked and sounded like Motley Crue.

Quiet Riot, Ratt, WASP, Kix, Krokus and Mamas Boys are a few bands that benefited from Motley Crue breaking out of the L.A Sunset Strip scene. The labels even made bands that didn’t look like Motley Crue, look like Motley Crue. Accept, Fastway, Helix, Saxon, Kiss, Tygers of Pan Tang and Dokken are a few bands that had a “look and feel change” to their wardrobes.

Then Bon Jovi breaks out towards the end of 1986 with “Slippery When Wet” and suddenly we have the labels signing bands that look and sound like Bon Jovi. Plus they also make bands that didn’t sound like Jovi, create albums that sound like Jovi. Kiss delivering “Crazy Nights” is a perfect example of a pre-existing band delivering a Bon Jovi sounding album.

Then two years later, Guns N Roses breaks out and suddenly we have the labels signing bands that look and sound like Guns N Roses. Roxx Gang, Skin N Bones, Bullet Boys, Plus they also make bands that didn’t sound like Guns N Roses, create albums that sounded similar.

Thrash metal as a moment broke out by 1985 and suddenly we had a plethora of labels signing bands to write thrash music. Then Metallica breaks out commercially with the Black album in 1991. This time the labels didn’t sign any new acts, but all of the trash bands on labels were asked to deliver albums that sounded like the Black album.

Then Nirvana breaks out and brings the sounds of Seattle to the masses. So what do the labels do? They drop nearly every hard rock/metal act and go and sign acts that play the Seattle sound. They even get existing bands to look like Seattle. I remember Megadeth wearing flannel shirts in 1994. Same deal for Motley Crue with Corabi on vocals. Metallica went even more Gothic/Surrealism/Industrial  like with their look in 1995.

See a trend happening here.

The labels didn’t give a shit about the artists. Once the artist stopped selling, the A&R reps stopped calling.

So what do we have in 2016?

It’s all about the money. The label is only interested if you can generate dollars, right off the bat because in the past, all of the money was in the recordings. But the artist also wants to be paid as soon as they put up a song or an album for release. What happened to the saying “It’s all about the music”?

Sure, money is important, but in reality (and between the Seventies and the late Nineties), only 1% of acts who crossed over, got paid some serious dough. The others got advances, which they had to pay back from sales. This in turn led to a lot of artists classed as unrecouped. And while in the past, the money was in the recordings, today the money is in the touring and all the rest that comes with it.

But the money tree is changing. There will be more money from recordings again as streaming gets more market share and revenue rises. The labels are making more money now than they’ve ever been.

While a lot has changed, one thing that hasn’t changed is that good records still sell and remain in the charts and in the public conversation for a long time. While in the past, MTV made bands into Platinum stars and built their careers overnight, today’s quest for stardom is more in line with that of the Seventies era, which was run by rock bands.

And what did the rock bands do?

They wrote music, played shows from city to city. TV was irrelevant for success in the Seventies and it’s irrelevant again in 2016. The only time TV sold music was during the Eighties and Nineties when MTV led culture.

In the Seventies, you built up your career, from band to band, city to city, cover band to cover band and whatever else you could do that put you in front of a live audience. Today you build up a career online, from YouTube video to YouTube video, from Facebook post to Facebook post and whatever else you need to do to get your name in front of people.

We’re never going back to the past. To participate in the present, it’s all about earning and maintaining attention. Financial rewards come many years after, but you need to be around to capitalise on it, building that ongoing relationship with your audience.

Which means you need to be a lifer in music.

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Greed Will Kill The Streaming Star

I mentioned in an earlier post how the greed from the major record labels could end up killing streaming services. Since then, Swedish musicians are threatening to sue major labels Universal Music and Warner Music over streaming royalties. This is following a similar pattern from the lawsuits against the labels over iTunes sales and how those sales got paid back to the artists as royalties. Artists like Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Don Henley and Eminem led the way.

Even Billy Bragg stated the same via his Facebook account;
“These artists have identified that the problem lies with the major record labels rather than the streaming service and are taking action to get royalty rates that better reflect the costs involved in digital production and distribution. UK artists would be smart to follow suit.”

The major labels operate with a digital (streaming and mp3 sales) business model that is rooted in the past. The majors still pay a less than 10% royalty rate to artists for digital income. The 10% average rate is based on the age when the record companies produced a physical product like vinyl or CD, stored it in a warehouse and then transported that product to a brick and mortar store. Of course at that time all of these steps in the process where accounted for.

However in the digital age, there is no need to even produce a physical product like vinyl or CD however the labels are still short-changing their artists. If the streaming rates paid to the labels were so bad, trust me, the majors and the RIAA would be the first ones screaming theft. By being silent on the matter means that the majors are making real good money from streaming.

Spotify pays 70% of its revenues to music rights holders. By the end of 2013, they expect that those payments will exceed $500m. How much of that money gets passed on to musicians depends on the terms of their contracts with labels. Maybe the RIAA should be lobbying hard to get a bill passed where streaming is seen as a license and seventy percent goes to the artist. But we will never see that, as the RIAA is there to protect the record labels, not the artists. However they claim in their rhetoric that they are working on behalf of the artist.

From a metal perspective, Century Media Records pulled their music from Spotify in August 2011, citing that physical sales have dropped drastically in all countries where Spotify is active. Then in July 2012, they opted back in. By February 2013, they released a Spotify app. What a turnabout by the label? Metal Blade pulled music of Spotify in September due to no real agreement in place.

If you are on a major label roster you should have followed the Def Leppard route. Due to disagreements they were having on the digital payment terms with their label, they then refused to let their label put their catalogue on digital services.
However, then in order to cash in on the Rock Of Ages movie and the sudden interest in “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “Rock of Ages”, they released digital “forgeries” of these classics and they released them on their own terms. Do you hear Def Leppard complaining about streaming and iTunes rates for those two songs? This year, they even released their “Hysteria” forgery.

Once upon a time, the artists had the power. Then in the Eighties, the labels stole it back. With the rise in revenue due to the CD, it made the labels mega rich powerhouses. Well it’s time for the artists to take back the power. Basically the labels without any artists are worth nothing. However, a lot of the artists just don’t see the big picture.

Those times of when recording was really profitable are over. Long gone. Recording revenues are shrinking. Streaming is trying to bring back some of it. If more and more people are paying for it the overall pool of money grows. These services need time to grow. However, as I mentioned previously, how much of that money gets passed on to musicians depends on the terms of their contracts with the labels?

Maybe Spotify and Deezer should become a label and start signing artists themselves as it is obvious that the major labels don’t care about their artists.

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A to Z of Making It, Classic Songs to Be Discovered, Influenced, Music, My Stories

The Heart Beat of True Popularity Begins From Unpopular Positions

The kids of today are looking for the new and the different, while they are discovering the past with the help of their parents. If artists don’t have people dropping their jaws these days, chances are they are not going to last.

With this in mind, it got me thinking about Jeff Watson and his time in Night Ranger, along with that jaw dropping eight finger tapping technique.

In 1983, Night Ranger went from an opening act to a headlining act with the release of their second album “Midnight Madness” album.

I can’t believe that it is not on Spotify for me to officially stream, however if I go onto YouTube it is available in its entirety, to be streamed unofficially.

The band at the time was made up of Jack Blades – Bass/Lead vocals, Jeff Watson – Guitars/Keyboards, Brad Gillis – Guitars, Alan Fitzgerald – Keyboards and Kelly Keagy – Drums/Lead vocals.

Jack Blades once said that “Sister Christian” and the release of Midnight Madness was the band’s pinnacle moment.

So what happened.

Let’s look at Jack Blades first. His first band was called “The Nomads” and it goes back to 1966. He work with “Sly and The Family Stone” as a songwriter and experienced fame with funk rockers “Rubicon” in 1978 along with Brad Gillis.

By 1979, the band was no more. When “Rubicon” broke up, Kelly Keagy was their touring drummer. The trio then formed the band Stereo.

Stereo then ceased to be when a roommate of Blades called Alan Fitzgerald (bassist for Montrose, keyboardist for Sammy Hagar) suggested that they form a rock band. Alan knew a virtuoso guitarist called Jeff Watson from Sacramento, and with Jack Blades, Brad Gillis and Kelly Keagy coming over from Stereo, the band Ranger was formed in 1980. Due to a naming dispute, the name changed from Ranger to Night Ranger.

When Night Ranger broke up in 1989, Blades received a call from John Kalodner, then at Geffen Records. Kalodner mentioned to Blades that Tommy Shaw and Ted Nugent are working on songs in New York, but something was missing. Kalodner thought that Blades would be a good addition to the equation. From one super group to another super group.

Anyway looking at Jack Blades, his year zero as a composer began in the “seventies”. His greatest work according to himself, happened in 1983 with “Midnight Madness”, which took place 17 years from when he joined his first band. From a Night Ranger perspective, it took the band three years to compose their greatest masterpiece from when they formed in 1980.

Next up you have Brad Gillis.

Gillis will always be remembered for replacing Randy Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne’s band immediately after Rhoads’ death in 1982. At the time, Night Ranger was still an unknown band from California. When Night Ranger got together in 1980, they focused solely on getting a major label deal instead of playing live.

In the interim, Gillis had a side project called “Alameda All Stars” that played the local clubs for extra cash. During one of those gigs, Preston Thrall, the brother of Pat Thrall was in attendance. After seeing Gillis tear up the stage covering a few Ozzy/Rhoads era songs, he mentioned to Gillis that he should audition.

For the history buffs, Preston Thrall told his brother Pat Thrall about Brad Gillis. Of course, Pat Thrall knew current Ozzy drummer Tommy Aldridge as they played together in the Pat Travers band. So Pat Thrall informs Tommy Aldridge and Aldridge them informs Sharon. At the time Ozzy was working with Bernie Tormé as an interim player.

In the end, Gillis didn’t feel that Ozzy’s band was the best fit for him. He saw another L.A band, Quiet Riot, get a record deal, and when he saw Rudy Sarzo leave to go back to Quiet Riot, Gillis left Ozzy as well, to go back to Night Ranger.

Jeff Watson is the X-factor here. While Brad Gillis is a good guitar player and Jack Blades gave the band it’s crossover rock appeal, Jeff Watson was the shredder that the band needed, which in turn gave the band some serious metal cred. Any person that transposes a piano piece he wrote to the guitar and plays it tapped with eight fingers, deserves a trophy in the Shred Hall Of Fame.

In my opinion Jeff lives in the upper level of guitar circles and his playing/technique is held in high regard. He was born and raised in Fair Oaks (Sacramento) California and started to play the guitar when he was seven.

He took it seriously when he finished high school and got a job at a local music store, where he launched The Jeff Watson Band. Eric Martin (from future Mr Big fame) was the first of three singers the band had. The band got a decent amount of radio airplay as the songs were being produced by both Alan Fitzgerald and Ronnie Montrose. The Jeff Watson Band even opened up for Sammy Hagar, Heart and Ted Nugent. It was while producing “The Jeff Watson Band” that Alan Fitzgerald decided to include Jeff Watson in any new project that he would be involved in.

Even though Jeff Watson doesn’t have a lot of song writing credits on “Midnight Madness”, his influence is still heard years after due to the lead breaks and the Eight Finger Tapping Technique.

Kelly Keagy started doing the club circuit in the Seventies and eventually entered the world of Jack Blades and Brad Gillis as a touring drummer for “Rubicon”.

Alan Fitzgerald goes back to 1974, when he played bass in the band Montrose. He went on to play keyboard for Sammy Hagar’s solo releases and was rooming with Jack Blades.

When “Midnight Madness” came out, Jack Blades was 29, Brad Gillis was 26, Jeff Watson was 27, Kelly Keagy was 31 and Alan Fitzgerald was 34. All of the members had paid their dues in other bands since the start of the Seventies. In other words they were seasoned. Music was all they had. There was no fall back position. There was no safety net or a plan B. It was all or nothing.

In a way, you could call Night Ranger a pseudo supergroup. Jack Blades, Brad Gillis and Kelly Keagy came from Rubicon. Alan Fitzgerald came from Montrose, Gamma and Sammy Hagar’s solo band. Jeff Watson came from his own solo band, that had songs on radio and production from Ronnie Montrose.

The album kicks off with the Jack Blades and Brad Gillis composition “(You Can Still) Rock in America”. How do you follow-up this song?

You don’t.

You change tact and go into the melodic AOR Rock format, popularised by Journey, REO Speedwagon and Styx. There is no point in trying to re-write a bona fide classic.

Two Jack Blades compositions come next in “Rumours In The Air” and “Why Does Love Have to Change”. That guitar intro in “Rumours In The Air” is smoking and the keyboard call to arms lead break after the first chorus shows that Fitzgerald wasn’t there just to play chords.

Side 1 ends with the anthem “Sister Christian”. The song is composed by Kelly Keagy. This is the era of the LP, when sequencing mattered. When the song finished it made you want to turn the LP over, so that you hear what was on the other side.

Side 2 opens up with two Jack Blades compositions in “Touch of Madness” and “Passion Play”. What a way to kick it off, with the tinker box intro that to be honest was used to maximum effect by Ozzy Osbourne on the song “Mr Tinkertrain”.

Not as strong as Side 1, up next was the Jack Blades, Alan Fitzgerald and Brad Gillis composition” When You Close Your Eyes”. A pure slice of melodic AOR rock.

The Jack Blades and Brad Gillis composition “Chippin’ Away” is next and the album closes with the Jack Blades, Kelly Keagy and Jeff Watson track “Let Him Run”.

Being different was a uniqueness when I was growing up. That was the space the heavy metal and rock musicians occupied.

It was an us vs. them mentality. The “Them” was always a moving target. It could have been teachers, parents, police officers, neighbours or anyone else that upset the status quo for the day.

The end of Night Ranger happened with the success of “Midnight Madness.” Suddenly, the band was on the radar of the record label. The label wanted another “Midnight Madness” so they could capitalise on the cash. It came in “7 Wishes”. Then the label wanted another “Midnight Madness” and it came in “Big Life.” 

The band went from outcasts and creating something new, to a maintenance model of new music, purely designed to earn maximum profits.

Music is best when it’s created and led by the outcasts, those artists that sit on the fringes. Record Labels and suits believe they know best, because all they care about is profits. Night Ranger sat on the fringes for “Dawn Patrol” and for the writing of “Midnight Madness”. 

Even Quiet Riot sat on the fringes. Then it all exploded with “Metal Health” in 1983. It took everyone by surprise. Then the money started to roll in from the large record label advances. Then the bands started to go on massive arena tours.

Suddenly, the bands are afraid to lose friends. Suddenly, the bands are afraid to stand out. The key is to be different AND liked.

Look at the now. Nothing sounded like Volbeat’s “Beyond Hell Above Heaven” previously but it was a huge hit. Protest The Hero are all twisted with their insane progessive songs, but they are embraced by a hard-core fan base that gave the band over $300K to get their next album done..

There is a quote that I remember from Adlai E. Stevenson that goes something like; 

“All progress has resulted from people who took unpopular positions.”

Put that quote in a musical context. All great music has resulted from people who lived as casts, who had unpopular positions, who wrote music because they wanted to write music, not because they wanted to make millions.

That is where the heart beat of true popularity begins.

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